I first encountered Mary Renault’s books in my teens, as they fed a fascination I had had with Ancient Greece from a young child – not the Ancient Romans, always the Ancient Greeks!
Periodically I re-read Renault. What I most love is her ability to be deeply versed in the history, but (for the most part) to wear her history lightly and to lift these extremely complex facts (details of wars, conflicts, politics, culture) into a poetic, mythic creation of flesh and blood. Her characters seem both real living human beings, but also archetypes, dangerous, archaic, raise-the-hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff.
There is something, for me, in the curious contrasted mixture of the rational, thoughtful, philosophical, conscious Apollonian strand to Greek civilisation, and the dark, Dionysian rituals, the savagery, the barbarism. Greek history and mythology is such a weird, bizarre mix
Fire From Heaven is Volume 1 of Renault’s Alexandrian Trilogy, the story of the Macedonian born Alexander the Great, from his birth, to the death of Philip of Macedon, his father (or was he – this is an important thread within the novel)
Although at times there are too many historical characters on the scene, and deciphering the many shifting alliances and wars of small states is a little confusing – particularly as there are several historical characters with the same name (3 Alexanders!) – overall this is a gripping, absorbing narrative.
Renault was of course primarily, despite her great research, a novelist, so what she has done is fleshed out and imagined the people behind the recorded facts that are there.
She is true to the spirit and the times, so that the weird, the mythic, the acceptance of the oracles, the signs, the presence of the magical is presented through the eyes of then, not interpreted as now.
Where she is most magical, for this reader, is where she rises to the poetic and symbolic. Often, in her description of the bloody, the barbaric, the destruction and savagery.
By the clear lake of Lychnidis, the mud of combat settled, pike and eels picked clean the drifting dead. The crushed lilies slept to sprout green another year; the white acacia flowers fell like snow in the next fresh wind, and hid the blood. Widows mourned, maimed men fumbled at former skills, orphans knew hunger who had never lacked before. The people bowed to fate, as to a murrain on the cattle, or untimely hail stripping the olive trees. They went, even the widows and orphans, to make thank-offerings at the shrines;……..Their gods, regarding their offerings kindly, kept from them the knowledge that they had been a means and not an end. In grief, more than in joy, man longs to know that the universe turns around him.
I received this as an ARC from the digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media, who are publishing tremendous digital versions of some classic twentieth century re-releases